As we settle into winter, there’s a risk of getting a bit bored with the string of brown ales, porters, and stouts that seem to populate a lot of tap lists this time of year. If you ever find yourself in that position, turn to a Belgian. As luck would have it, Belgians offer a nice dark-ish ale of their own in the Abbey ale family. Now’s the time to brew up a Belgian Dubbel.
I made my first after being handed some Belgian dark candi syrup as a prize from a competition, and it wasn’t something I’d have ever picked up on my own; the organizer just grabbed something at random to throw in with my prizes. Still, it made an excellent beer, and my very first (award-winning) Dubbel earned its name: Dumb Luck Dubbel.
Abbey beers are that family of beers originally brewed by monks dating back to the Middle Ages, we suspect, but certainly a common feature of monastic brewing from the 19th century forward. Dubbel is a medium-strength amber/brown ale that serves as a great platform for lots of fantastic malt flavors and fermentation characteristics (along with, as we’ll see, some supporting herbal/earthy hops). Dark fruit, burnt sugar, citrus esters, clove, a touch of banana, and more all feature in what ends up being a surprisingly dry beer. The trick (there’s always a trick, isn’t there?) is to avoid going overboard and yielding something too sweet, too alcoholic, or too…Belgian. When this style goes bad, it’s hard to drink—cloying, muddled, and hot. It’s enough to make the monks weep. With a bit of care, though, yours will have them singing instead!
I’m afraid we have a grist bomb, here. My apologies in advance.
Start with 5 pounds (2.3 kg) of Maris Otter and 4 pounds (1.8 kg) of Belgian Pils malt. That base should give you some good grainy/bready background to work with. On top of that base, add 1 pound (454 g) each of 10L Munich, Malted Red Wheat, and Victory. Then include a half pound (227 g) each of Special B and Carapils. And as if that’s not enough, toss in a dash (1−2 ounces/28−57 g) of Black Patent. Sorry about that: I don’t like complex grists, but sometimes you just have to. Can you leave some of these out? Sure. But I think that if you do, you’ll find that the beer feels incomplete. I’ve tried to dial it back and condense, but it’s never worked. I brew this one when I need to clear out the ol’ inventory.
In exchange, though, hopping is pretty straightforward: one ounce (28 g) of Styrian Goldings (about 5 percent AA) at 60 minutes and another half-ounce (14 g) at 20 minutes. You should end up with a gravity of about 1.070, and 23−24 IBUs. But wait, the math isn’t working…
Oh, right—we forgot the secret ingredient! Before you boil, remove the pot from the heat and stir in 12 ounces (340 g) of Belgian dark candi syrup.
And as for yeast, I use my reliable Belgian Ardennes, Wyeast 3522. There are more flavorful Belgian yeasts out there, but this beer is complex enough without the heroics from a hyperactive yeast.
Mash, lauter, and sparge as usual, then add the candi syrup to your kettle (off the heat), stirring until it dissolves—you might think about doing this between the mash, and the lauter, especially if (like me) you fill to near the top of your kettle (it avoids sloshing wort over the side!). Boil for 60 minutes, chill, aerate, and pitch your yeast. Fermentation is the name of the game here—not surprising in any Belgian beer, but especially true of these dark versions. There’s a lot in this beer that might make it seem sweet, and so we need to make sure that it ferments out nice and dry. Leave too much body and sugar behind, and that, plus the alcohol, plus the esters, plus the flavor of burnt sugar, might make it come across as sweet, which is a no-no.
Ferment at 64°F (18°C) to start and increase slowly almost immediately. The goal is to minimize warm alcohols but also to promote complete fermentation and some yeast flavor contributions. From the time I see fermentation activity (usually about 8−12 hours after a healthy dose of oxygen), I start increasing the temperature by 1°F (1−2°C) per day until I hit room temperature. If that’s below 70°F (21°C) as it sometimes is this time of year, I’ll move the carboy to a warm spot and let it free-rise to as high as it can go. The Ardennes is a high-flocculator, and as a result, you want to let it get right to work, finish fermentation, and drop clear.
Carbonate to 2.5 volumes to give an added dry feel, and you’re good to go! The result should be a dry but complex beer that is a beautiful ruby-red, especially after a couple of weeks of chilling after packaging!
For reasons I can’t understand, lots of recipes call for lower-Lovibond crystal malts in beers of this type. For what it’s worth, that seems self-defeating. Crystal 10 and 20 always add a sweet caramel flavor to beer, on my tongue, and when the goal is a dry and dark beer, this always seemed like an odd choice. Trust your other character malts and the additional carbonation to fill out the mouthfeel, and you’ll never miss those light crystals!
Open one of these by the fire and start counting the days until spring.